The creator of the world wide web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has warned that the internet “is not working for women and girls” in an open letter he penned to mark the 31st anniversary of his invention.
The “growing crisis” of online harms, sexual harassment and discrimination are making the web an unsafe space for women. Online abuse, he said, was forcing women out of jobs, causing girls to skip school, damaging relationships and silencing female opinions.
“The world has made important progress on gender equality thanks to the unceasing drive of committed champions everywhere,” he wrote.
“But I am seriously concerned that online harms facing women and girls – especially those of colour, from LGBTQ+ communities and other marginalised groups – threaten that progress.”
Berners-Lee’s letter follows the publication of research carried out by his Web Foundation organisation and the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts which found that the majority of young women surveyed had experienced some form of online violence such as sexual harassment or threatening messages. 87% of the girls surveyed indicated that they thought the problem was getting worse.
“It’s up to all of us to make the web work for everyone,” the letter states. “That requires the attention of all those who shape technology, from CEOs and engineers to academics and public officials.”
He also highlighted the risks posed by artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms saying that they can “reproduce and even deepen existing inequalities,” citing Amazon’s sexist hiring software that reportedly favoured male candidates over female applicants as an example.
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The Coronavirus, he said, “demonstrates just how urgently we need action. When offices and schools close, the web is a lifeline that allows us to keep working, educating our children and reading information vital to keeping us safe and healthy.
“A world where so many women and girls are deprived of these basics is completely unacceptable,” he added.
The NSPCC has welcomed Berners-Lee’s letter and said it should make people “sit up and take notice”.
“Young women and girls must be able to use the internet free from the fear of sexual abuse and harassment,” said Andy Burrows, head of child safety online policy at the charity.
“Tech firms are not neutral actors and their decisions have real world consequences.
“But for too long we’ve seen a piecemeal and often insufficient response from platforms that put users in harm’s way.
“This is a global problem but the UK has a real opportunity to lead the way with an Online Harms regulator that requires tough but proportionate action on both illegal and inappropriate content.”